How would you describe K-POP in one word?
I have always thought I was the kind of person that was interested in all kinds of music. Having been a die-hard boy band (1D, let’s be honest now) fan back in my tweens, and being all -round appreciative of popular music, I couldn’t quite place why I wasn’t, in the slightest, interested in Korean pop music.
One afternoon, a tired student trolled through Netflix in desperation and landed on one of its shiny latest documentaries: ‘Blackpink: Light Up the Sky’ (premiered 14th October 2020).
Who are BLACKPINK?
The band ‘debuted’ back in 2016, signed under the major South Korean media group YG Entertainment. The members include South Korean Jisoo, South Korean raised in New Zealand Jennie, South Korean raised in Australia Rosé and finally Thai Lisa. The fact that the members come from very different backgrounds is one of the possible reasons behind the band’s world-renowned fame. The K-pop fans we interviewed had differing views of the band and the documentary, with one saying:
“It’s been amazing to see an all-female group dominate the charts and inspire a lot of new fashion trends and dance challenges. They’re bad-ass and I think they inspire a lot of confidence in women.”
There is no doubt that this girl group has achieved a series of accolades, among them, People’s Choice Awards and five Guinness world records with their music video ‘How you like that’, reaching an astonishing 86.3 million views in 24 hours.
What might be wrong with K-pop?
Light Up the Sky highlighted some of the key issues with K-pop. For starters, the BLACKPINK artists spoke in-depth about their years as ‘trainees’. They explained how they dropped out of school from ages ten to sixteen in order to permanently move to South Korea, where they lived and trained with their fellow trainees every day.
The artists follow extreme training schedules, training for thirteen days in succession and resting for one day before repeating the whole process. One Fan, Finch, shared some views, expressing dislike for:
“The dehumanisation of group members. I think this is getting better though when I look at present groups like YOURS who release videos of their education about things like depression and cultural appropriation.’
Another fan raised concerns about the visual importance of K-pop:
“I dislike the beauty standards and toxicity around appearances. There’s a very strict cookie-cutter image that most idols have to fit into, and there are quite drastic dieting measures taken by companies so that idols perfectly represent this image.”
Whilst this is concerning, we should not mistake this to be a West vs. East phenomenon. Bands such as One Direction had fairly similar backgrounds, with band members starting out as young as sixteen and working for five years without significant breaks. Recent allegations against Simon Cowell and his production and management companies have brought more awareness to this issue, which is after all, global.
Racism & Cultural appropriation
A fan shared their difficult experience with enjoying K-pop:
‘This [constant use of cultural appropriation and at times blatant racism] is something which is slowly being corrected and improved upon. When they [instances of racism] occur, they really discourage me from being a K-pop fan. As someone of African descent, I find myself questioning why I continue to support and love an industry that makes the same offensive mistakes over and over again, without seeming to learn from them.”
Hye Jin Lee looked into K-pop’s racist side, uncovering how many musical influences in K-pop, such as rap and hip-hop often come from Black culture, and how there have been instances of outright racism such as blackface and racist remarks.
While this does not represent all K-pop groups, this is a systemic issue within the industry that needs to be addressed by entertainment companies and the artists themselves.
Some fans seem to be extremely unforgiving on social media, and there have been reports of entire arenas performing a ‘black ocean‘ (a phenomenon in which the fans turn of all their lights and stop singing and dancing to ‘punish’ idols for behaviour they dislike).
I was curious to find out how fans felt about the portrayal of idols in the media and on stage, especially when it comes to an entirely female band that seems to be managed mainly by men.
“I think overall it does seem to lean that way [over-sexualisation]. Although, some concepts are just straight-up cute. I also think the perceived reaction from fans also weighs into this.”
It is true that, like many other artists that have recently been slut-shamed in the media, such as Miley Cyrus, an artists’ outfits and indeed, sexual expression should not grant others permission to sexualise or take advantage of them.
Ironically, it is well known that BLACKPINK does not have much creative license over their music or lyrics. Their producer TEDDY openly asserts that he has ‘written and produced’ every song the band has released. Most songs seem to be about relationships and love. However, YG is famous for not permitting the band to date. In an interview, band members tell the presenter that the band is not allowed to date, drink, smoke, club, drive, get tattoos or plastic surgery.
This raises moral questions about BLACKPINK’s music and image – why are they promoting stories about relationships through their music while maintaining an image of chastity for the media? It is definitely preoccupying as it seems that adult women above legal age are prohibited to make certain choices.
So…why do people love K-pop so much?
“I love the entire culture. I’ve met some really good friends through our love of the same group. Everyday when I wake up there are updates from the group. Their content range is so wide, it is impossible to get bored.'” shares Chu.
“K-pop takes music more seriously than the West. They do everything times ten.” – Finch
“The performativity and thought that goes into it – the effort that goes into dance performances and concepts is insane, and some groups have their own universes where they create story lines for the members that go along with the music videos.”
The most striking thing for me was without a doubt the work ethic and creativity that goes into the music and performances. While I will say that I find the grooming and controlling methods extremely concerning, the product is definitely appealing – and the music is a bop.